Design and Empathy

· June 5th

The most important trait a designer can have is empathy.

Practical skills are important, and a shot of talent never hurts, but at its core, design relies on our ability to see things through the eyes of our audience. We must be able to build and evaluate from the user’s perspective in addition to our own.

When I was nine years old, I decided I wanted to make video games. I started teaching myself to program, and was soon building little interactive adventures which mimicked the games I admired. The resulting games were engaging to me, but anyone else who tried to play them found them to be incomprehensible. I had made a crucial mistake: I was designing with only myself in mind, even though my goal was to create experiences which would be equally enjoyable to others.

When you make something, you know it intimately. It’s easy to become blind to its faults as your mind fills in the gaps between your perception and the reality of your work. Your closeness to a project can hinder your ability to evaluate and improve it.

Empathy is the trait which allows us to view our work through the lens of someone else’s wants and needs. It’s what allows us to “kill our darlings,” letting go of the elements which we put in for our own gratification rather than for the benefit of the user. It’s the trait that reminds us that our users are real people with complex motives and behaviors, not two-dimensional abstractions.

Designing for yourself isn’t inherently bad; some of the most brilliant digital products were produced by designers who were scratching their own itch, however we must avoid the mistake of designing for ourselves when we aren’t the target audience in the first place. Making the assumption that everyone thinks and acts like us can be a fatal error, and it’s made often.

Making games taught me some valuable lessons about design, but my time as a game development hobbyist came to a close before I could release anything worthy of public consumption. My interests shifted towards web design, a profession which isn’t so different at its root. Both are about developing a framework for interaction; both are about creating experiences that delight the user. They both require an understanding of human nature which can only come from putting yourself in another person’s shoes.

Design is a uniquely holistic profession; it influences, and is influenced by, our everyday lives. One can do accounting or do engineering, but one must be a designer. The things which make us better people likewise make us better designers. Empathy is chief among these.